The strange things restorers find in old aircraft.

The gum wrapper is modern, but the medallion, scraps of paper, and builder's plate (with the aircraft's serial number) go back to the Hawker Hurricane's years of operation in World War II. (Eric Long)
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The American-made Albatross, named Falcon, had been donated to the Smithsonian in 1935 by the widow of Warren E. Eaton, who had flown SPAD XIII fighters in the 103rd Aero Squadron in France during World War I. After the war, Eaton founded the Soaring Society of America. Could the embroidered handkerchief have been given to him by a beloved family member, or by the object of his affections? At some point had a woman flown the glider? It's fun to imagine the possibilities.

A small medallion—discovered tightly crumpled around a screw in a World War II British Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIC fighter—also ended up teasing the restorers with possible storylines. Museum Specialist Will Lee, who found the medal while working on the Hawker restoration, took the time to straighten it out, make it recognizable, and do some investigating. "It's actually a watch fob," says Lee. In the course of researching the item, Lee learned the meaning of the medallion's icons: "The anchor symbol means it was made in Birmingham, England. The lion indicates that it's made of silver, and the letter corresponds to a date—in this case, 1915." But who had owned the medallion? A pilot? A maintainer? A person of wealth? And why was it wrapped around a screw?

Whoever the medallion's owner was, he may have had a sweet tooth: While working on the Hurricane, Garber employees also found a vintage candy bar wrapper.

The handkerchief from the Albatross and the pencil from the Sparrowhawk were both catalogued and attached to the aircraft's collections by their curators. Not all items discovered during the restoration process are classified this way. "It really depends on the mood of the curator," says McLean, "whether he has time to process the item and whether he even knows about it."

No matter what object the restorers find, even when they can't fit it into any kind of narrative, they take it seriously. They know that what looks like a piece of junk can be brought to life by the right insight. At Garber, a jagged metal scrap can serve as a small portrait of wartime desperation, and a dirty list of scribbled numbers can show the drive it takes to set a world record—twice.

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